Wednesday 18 September 2019

Haunted by the darker side of love

THEATRE

Emer O'Kelly

YOU could say that Edna O'Brien loves love; its elusiveness haunts her. But hers is a very specific vision of that most complex of states.

To be in love can be a delirium of many other emotions, from bliss through contentment, from hatred through resentment. O'Brien has featured them all in her writing over the years, and overwhelmingly, she seems to see the state as a kind of crucifixion: the lover impaled and hanging unresisting on the supporting cross that is also the instrument of his or her (usually her) destruction.

In her new play, Haunted (a Manchester Royal Exchange production at the Gaiety in Dublin and about to transfer to Belfast), the author is viewing the "place or state" through a glass very darkly. Mr and Mrs Berry are seen at the end of their long tunnel of love, the shadows that flicker round them a less than salubrious coating on its walls. He has been a lifelong philanderer. She is practical, undemanding, and most certainly is not, "like Niobe, all tears".

This is a practical marriage, the haunting of earlier, happier times acknowledged, but only briskly. The real pain of haunting is the miscarriage that cast the first bloodstained blight on their happiness. Jack has preserved the sheet, witness to the tragedy, in the same trunk as his wife's wedding gown.

Perhaps because of this, he is obsessed with purity, and pursues a gentle young woman who teaches elocution. He showers her with gifts stolen from his wife's wardrobe, including significant heirlooms: rhinestone jewellery, a Balenciaga dress that had belonged to his mother in Ireland. But she too is haunted: a waif with a history.

At that moment we enter the second half, doubts beginning to rise as to the nature of purity: Mr Berry's hands never touch, but they quiver, they reach out. Hazel's shyness becomes less innocent, more calculating. And Mrs Berry steps in: as she always has, we learn. Because this has happened before, and this is what haunts her.

It's an uncomfortable premise, quite extraordinarily well handled by the trio of actors, with Niall Buggy superb as the covertly lascivious Jack, Brenda Blethyn as his battling, surviving, watchful wife, and Beth Cooke as the girl who may or may not be calculating rather than innocent.

But unerringly haunting as is O'Brien's thesis, the handling is wayward, with stylised, sometimes florid dialogue super-imposed on very naturalistically drawn characters as they quote passages and aphorisms from the classics at the drop of a pause.

There's also a somewhat uneasy, overblown design (Simon Higlett) which makes liberal use of back projection, mostly of roses in various formations. They're garish and unsubtle, the kind of blooms on display outside filling stations, possibly a deliberate device to highlight the vulgarity of our concepts of romance and love. But the result is jarring, despite Braham Murray's tight directorial hand.

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SIMON Doyle's Off Plan (for Raw and Project at the Project in Dublin) is very well written indeed. Nor does it take liberties with its origins (Aeschylus' Oresteia). It's fascinatingly conceived, with remarkably excellent production values, and it's well acted and directed. Yet it doesn't work.

The only reason I can find for this is that it strains too hard for "relevance" and attempts to squeeze the original too tightly into a 21st Century Irish idiom, instead of allowing its broad theme to strike its own chords with the audience. That broad theme concerns deceit and betrayal remaining unpunished, while offenders against political and personal morality survive by using their predecessors' own arguments against them.

In the original, Agememnon returns from the 10-year Trojan War, at the beginning of which he had sacrificed his daughter Iphegenia to the gods to gain a fair sailing wind. His wife Clytemnestra has since taken his cousin Aegisthus as lover, and murders him in revenge for Iphegenia's death and in order to facilitate her guilty liaison.

Her son Orestes has been exiled, and her remaining daughter Electra is shunned for continuing to mourn her father. Then Orestes returns, and the brother and sister murder their mother and her lover but escape punishment with the assistance of the goddess Athena.

But Greek audiences would know their legends, and while the play ends there, Orestes and Electra ultimately suffer as terrible a fate as they visit upon their mother. There's no escape in Greek tragedy.

In Off Plan, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus have "developed" the country in Agememnon's absence. Aegisthus has even taken over the re-development of the ruined Troy, only to have it sink due to shoddy workmanship. But since Agememnon's noble heroics have involved slaughtering all of Troy's citizens as well as the murder of his own daughter, he is seen as no better than his wife and her lover.

But "nobody cares what happens here," as Clytemnestra remarks after killing her husband. It's all a bit polemic, and the final "trial scene" is merely leaden in its finger-wagging at our own society.

The multi-media presentation in Alyson Cummins' set design, with video by Martin Rottenkolber, is a visual treat, and director Rachel West pulls her elements together with admirable consistency.

The playing is terrific, particularly from Mary Murray as an off-the-wall Electra, and Alan Howley as the Chorus. Anthony Brophy is Agamemnon, Gary Murphy Aegisthus, and Paul Mallon Orestes. Emma McIvor is Clytemnestra, and while the performance isn't weak, she does seem a bit overwhelmed at times.

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ALAN Stanford has given us a 21st Century Hamlet in Victorian dress in his current production of the play for Second Age (at the Town Hall in Galway, transferring to The Helix in Dublin, and the Everyman in Cork.) And a solid, credible production it is, aimed at the schools audiences, but also catering for more experienced theatregoers.

Marty Rea plays an earnest, worried Prince, thoughtful, reflective: untouched by humour save when he decides to "spin" himself to the outside world. This is no madman, but a serious young politician touched briefly but disastrously by psychosis in the introspection of grief.

Rea delivers himself of the role with authority and aplomb, his brief uncontrolled rages all the more impressive in contrast to his "normal" cautious awareness of the intricacies of his world.

Maeve Fitzgerald plays Ophelia in a tandem harness: a composed, "superior" young woman who sees her future mapped out in quiet happiness only to have everything flung in her face by forces she only dimly understands: her madness becomes a schizoid retreat from betrayal.

Everything is built around the two central portrayals, with almost uniformly good playing: a cynical, camp Polonius from Stephen Brennan, a ruthlessly self-serving Claudius from Garret Keogh, a Gertrude distraught in her own somewhat lumpish stupidity from Barbara Brennan, and a particularly heroic Laertes from Shawn Sturnick, his nobility showing the corruption of the court in pitiless relief.

Leonore McDonagh's mid-Victorian costumes are both authentic and glamorous. even if it's hard to see the point of choosing that particular period. The excellent fight sequences are by Paul Burke, and Maree Kearns and Sinead McKenna provide set and lighting designs respectively.

Sunday Independent

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